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Supporting an autistic student to work in a PBL/group work classroom IRD Guides and Tips

Supporting an autistic student to work in a PBL/group work classroom

Posted in Guides & Tips

“What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.”
Temple Grandin, The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s

What is Autism?

In 2013, Asperger syndrome, or Asperger’s, became part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).

Autism is a life-long condition and a fundamental aspect of the person’s identity. There are many subtypes of Autistic Disorder – also called “classic” autism.

“If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.” (Prof. Stephen Shore)
About Autism from amaze: Understanding Autism

Autism is a spectrum condition that differs from individual to individual. There is no single “autism”, so it is important to understand the diad of impairments and sensory sensitivities that individuals on the autism spectrum are likely to experience.

The number of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to rise in Australia. According to the recent NDIS Quarterly Report issued in June 2015, Autism, once considered rare, is now 31% of NDIS participants, the largest disability group in the scheme.

Autism prevalence in Australia 2015 by Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia

About autisitic people

The autistic people you are likely to have as students at university are of average or above average intelligence. They may have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language. They do not have the intellectual disabilities that some autistic people have, but may have specific learning difficulties such as:

They may have auditory processing problems which makes it difficult for them to listen and take notes at the same time or follow complex conversations.

They may have a tendency to being overwhelmed because they see, hear and feel the world differently to other people and this can cause them considerable anxiety. This may result in mental health issues or other conditions, so may need different levels and types of support.

They often have an excellent memory and an ability to notice details of an idea, theory, number pattern, book, film object or visual image.

Many neurodiverse students who are not on the autism spectrum will also benefit from similar supports, and supports for students with ADHD or various learning disabilities may likewise be helpful for autistic students.

(The difficulty was) “mostly trying to decode teachers’ and students’ words fast enough to work out what they were asking. Also know when not to take them literally. Keeping up with the work was difficult but it helped that I didn’t waste time being socially active. I couldn’t listen to a lecture and take notes”.
Aspienwomen: Moving towards an adult female profile of Autism/Asperger Syndrome

Equity and Diversity – role and function

A student requires a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in order to be registered with Equity and Diversity. Involving Equity and Diversity from the outset will ensure advice and support to both student and staff member. Equity and Diversity recommend the following:

  • Arrange a meeting with the Subject coordinator/facilitator of the group and the Disability Advisor (DA). This will alleviate the anxiety of the student and identify the skills required to work in a PBL/group work classroom.
  • The DA can liaise with the the health provider (eg psychiatrist) to clarify how best to work with the student’s strengths and challenges.
  • Plan for what skills need to be developed and strategies to adopt.

Strategies to support a student on the autism spectrum in a PBL/group work classroom

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of a good teacher.”
Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado Stated University, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour and autism spokesperson.

The following strategies can benefit all students:

  • Speak in a clear, consistent way and to give people time to process what has been said to them.
  • Clearly map out what you are going to do in a PBL/group work class. Write down information so they have a written record of what to do. This will reduce their anxiety.
  • Use diagrams and other multi-modal ways of communicating information as often these students have an ability to think in visual images.
  • Provide information before the start of classes so the student knows what to expect and can prepare accordingly.
  • Design authentic learning experiences so they can draw conclusions and practice key skills to encourage them to think in different ways instead of literally and linearly.

Group Work/PBL

Autism can affect the way that individuals interact with others and how they experience the world around them.

  • Autistic people often have difficulty ‘reading’ other people – understanding facial expressions, tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm (which they can take literally), interpreting verbal and non-verbal gestures, vagueness, recognising or understanding others’ feelings and intentions – and expressing their own emotions.
  • Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. So group work can be challenging for them and others.
  • Have a tendency to tell the truth – even if it is not tactful or in their own self-interest which can be challenging in group work.

Challenges and Strategies

Group Work
Student Challenges Strategies
Prefers to work independently when overloaded by other people and not spend time seeking comfort from other people Support student by giving them a research option as they can concentrate for long periods of time on reading, experimenting and writing instead, which can provide invaluable research for the group task.
Can display restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours (such as nervous tics, rocking, ‘stimming’ – when overstimulated). So appear to behave in a way thought to be socially inappropriate in a group situation. Create a safe learning space for all students by preparing a code of conduct/guidelines agreed upon by the group before-hand which accepts a range of acceptable/ not acceptable behaviours.
May have some communication and cognitive processing difficulties, such as: executive function, sensory perception and the ability to comprehend the perspective of others. This can result in them taking a fixed point of view which they consider to be right and unchangeable. Provide opportunities for divergent thinking so student can demonstrate ability to think outside the box and can generate novel solutions and a different perspective to problems which might be worth considering as part of the group process.
Highly focused, preferring to research only one aspect of the problem and have an all-absorbing interest in specific topics. May be unable to understand the broader aspects of the situation. This can lead to talking for long periods of time on the one topic in the class without listening to the other members. Difficulty giving space for other students to talk by talking too much or not enough. Harness their ability to focus in depth on a topic of special interest, and absorb and retain large amounts of information, so they can contribute valuable information which could be relevant to the group. Encourage other group members to listen as well to model acceptable behaviour. Refer to the written code of conduct to manage any problematic behaviour.
Experience stress, anxiety, and confusion in social group or group work situations. Sensory overload can lead to continual generalised anxiety, bouts of depression that creep up on them especially in a group work situation which is not as predictable as a lecture. Provide specific, measurable tasks to do which feeds into their strong work ethic and commitment to quality and accurate work. These predictable tangible tasks can be harnessed in a group situation and can help to alleviate feelings of anxiety.
Struggle with listening to someone and maintaining eye contact at the same time as they are processing what is being said to them. So may appear disinterested. Provide extra time from peers and teaching staff so they can process the content and provide feedback.
Socially and emotionally younger/immature for their chronological age (especially in early twenties). Can be very trusting and naive and disclose too much confidential information. Can be emotionally too honest (inability or difficulty hiding true feelings when it would be more socially acceptable to do so). Naivety, innocence, trusting too much and taking others literally are a powerful concoction for being misused and abused. Ensure group work is carefully monitored by teaching staff/mentors.
Chronic anxiety can be triggered from too much thinking, perfectionism, fear of failure, to catastrophizing (thinking the worst result for an assignment and so not being able to start one) to change in routine, change in general and other people. Work with advice and support from the DA and a mentor in the group. (Link to Student in distress/Working with difficult students)
Experience stress about not fitting in, so feel they have to do things the right way. Provide limited choices and structure on how to perform a task (rubric) and talk them through how to do it.
Difficulty coping with changes in timetable, format of classes, location of classes, group changes etc. Alert them as early as possible about the changes in written form.
Providing Feedback
Peer evaluation can cause deep anxiety as it can be taken personally and perceived as an attack or criticism. Clearly explain the purpose of the evaluation before-hand (both verbally and in written form using a rubric) in a logical, structured way to support learning from the evaluation. If possible, provide modelling from other students.

Organisation/executive function skills:

  • filling out required forms for a PBL/groupwork task, budgeting money, planning ahead, answering the phone or talking to people on the phone
  • planning ahead and managing homework tasks
  • knowing how to start a particular task and get it completed
  • knowing where their possessions are
  • finding classrooms, waiting in line or at an appointment.

Work with student, to utilise their strong ability to think in images. Check if the following works for them:

  • Use a calendar planner, so tasks can be seen visually and map progress.
  • Break down tasks into manageable chunks (so it is not so overwhelming and alleviate anxiety).
  • Make a to-do list which can be checked off.
  • Provide a map or link to show where the classroom is.
Participation in Tutorials

Over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain.  Certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, can be unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain.  Noisy classrooms, (where group work is taking place) fluorescent lights, can be overwhelming because of sensory overload.

Loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, coarse textures/clothing, sirens close by or people too close can be overwhelming and stressful. This may explain some behaviours which they may not be able to articulate in group work.

Allow the student to withdraw, isolate them self when overwhelmed by their senses. Provide a mentor in the group to support them to do this.

As in all cases, ask the student (respectfully) directly, if you are in doubt about how the student wishes to be addressed/self-identify or the language the student wants used about them self.

“Change is one of the major difficulties for people with Asperger syndrome and transitioning from school to university was daunting for me. During this initial transition period it was often daunting for me as I was a new student in a new environment which did create anxious feelings for me.”
Aspirations: Asperger’s Syndrome. Tertiary Transitions from People with Asperger’s Syndrome by Professional Development Centre – Deborah Cameron

La Trobe Resources and References

External Resources and References

10 Things An Autistic Adult Wishes You Knew by synapse: Reconnecting lives
Asperger syndrome: What is Asperger syndrome? by National Autistic Society.
Autism Spectrum Condition by Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET).
How to Transition to Tertiary Education by Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) contains a number of resources to support transition to tertiary education.
Print ready resources for NDCOs by Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET).

Glossary of Terms

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)? (as defined by Savery, 2006):

  • Student-centred where students have responsibility for their own learning
  • Students organised into small groups to solve particular problems
  • Problem simulations allow for free inquiry
  • Collaboration is central to the process
  • What students learn must be applied to the problem
  • Students give self and peer evaluations
  • Activities must be applied to real world values
  • Brainstorming sessions about relevant issues in the field
  • Curriculum is pedagogical and not didactic
  • Reflective learning for example using the Gibbs reflective cycle

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